One of the many taglines HBO has used in promoting season 2 of Boardwalk Empire is ‘Power Breeds Betrayal’. If that is the case then, as Enoch ‘Nucky’ Thompson (Steve Buscemi) appeared to hold the vast majority of power in Atlantic City and beyond at the end of last season, Nucky had best be wary of those in whom he places his trust.
When we last saw him, Nucky was basking in the glow of having helped usher in both Warren G. Harding (Malachy Cleary) as President of the United States, and Edward Bader (Kevin O’Rourke) as Mayor of Atlantic City. Meanwhile, as Nucky’s power and influence ascended, a clandestine arrangement between Commodore Louis Kaestner (Dabney Coleman), Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) and, possibly least shocking of all, Nucky’s brother (and sheriff of Atlantic City), Eli Thompson (Shea Whigham) was being formed with the intent of bringing down Nucky and dividing his power amongst the conspirators.
By the time the second season starts, the plan is in full swing – and with Nucky seemingly none the wiser.
At one point during the episode, the Commodore is speaking to his son Jimmy, amongst all the prey he had, at one time or another, pursued and killed – and then put on display. He tells his son, “You will be judged at what you succeed at. Not by what you attempt.” This assertion of power is made all the more grotesque upon discovery the Commodore organized the Ku Klux Klan’s murderous attack on the liquor distribution warehouse operated by Chalky White (Michael Kenneth Williams).
The fallout of the attack places Nucky in the duplicitous position of speaking before both sides of the racially charged event, promising both congregations their best interests are the ones he holds most dear. Meanwhile, pieces are being moved into play that will further upset the stability of Nucky’s power in Atlantic City.
If nothing else, Boardwalk Empire has been about duality from the start – and with the first entry into the program’s second season, the show’s creator, Terrance Winter, is showing no signs of letting up on that theme. This season, as the focus begins to shift away from establishing Nucky, and lean more toward crafting a sense of tension regarding the conspiracy against him, the two-faced nature of the series regulars is on full display – and none more powerfully than in Agent Nelson Van Alden (Michael Shannon).
Coming off the murder of his partner (corrupt as he was) and subsequent affair with the sleepy-eyed Lucy Danzinger (Paz de la Huerta), which resulted in her carrying his child, we catch up with Van Alden as he has invited his wife to share a weekend together in celebration of their ‘lucky’ thirteenth wedding anniversary.
Last season, Shannon stole much of the show depicting the internal battle between of the outwardly pious and deeply sinister aspects of Van Alden. Shannon’s portrayal of the character was so commanding, that although he rarely shared scenes with any of the major players of Boardwalk Empire, the presence of Van Alden was nearly always felt. In season 2, it appears likely that Winter and the other writers will continue to use Van Alden as both a potential foil for Nucky and as thematic embodiment of appearance vs. reality, in all of Boardwalk Empire.
In this episode, Winter also spends a great deal of time analyzing the familial relationships that are shared by most of the characters in the series. And in the most poignant scene of this episode, the audience watches while Richard Harrow (Jack Huston) compiles a scrapbook of clippings and advertisements depicting the ‘ideal’ family. Here, given the literal, and figurative faces of Richard Harrow, and his outward longing for the one thing all others appear to take for granted, the two key themes of Boardwalk Empire are perfectly exemplified.
Clearly, though there is no biological bond between them, the father-son relationship between Nucky and Jimmy is the one Winter wishes to examine the closest – and for good reason. Nucky himself expresses concern, and outright jealousy, at the thought of the Commodore usurping the role of father figure to Jimmy. Sadly, as Winter points out, the tugging strings of responsibility and fatherhood come to Nucky only after he has essentially cast Jimmy aside – to be lured in by the Commodore’s power and influence.
Of course, the bonds shared by these men, and the ensuing conflict despite said bonds, are what help to make Boardwalk Empire so compelling. Though Nucky, Eli and Jimmy have all shown little compunction toward ending their disputes through violence - however, with so many of the key players sharing in some form or another, an attachment with their would be combatants, the choice to remove someone from the equation permanently becomes infinitely more difficult.
Meanwhile, Nucky is also facing familial issues of a more personal nature – having seemingly reconciled with Margaret Schroeder (Kelly Macdonald), and inviting her, and her two children back into his home. After some urging from Margaret, Nucky attempts to dispense some fatherly guidance to young Teddy Schroeder, but the situation quickly devolves into Nucky doing what his years in power have taught him to do: settle issues with money.
Nucky’s potentially blind belief that his power and wealth are absolute will be what makes him most vulnerable, and why season 2 is already shaping up to be every bit the powerhouse hour of television the first season was.
There is an overwhelming fascination audiences have with watching as an individual accumulates great power and wealth. Conversely, the same audience also delights in watching that station of prestige be dismantled, or, at the very least, threatened. From viewing the first episode, it appears as though we will begin to see such events unfold with Nucky at the center.
Overall, and especially in the season 2 opener, Boardwalk Empire brilliantly manages to institute an overarching concept and then analyze it across a broad spectrum of characters, motivations and emotions. Each major character seemingly believes they are the omniscient master of the lives of all others around them – and, as we see at the end of this episode, it is when such an idea of control is proven false, that the best story and character beats of the show really begin to take hold.
Boardwalk Empire airs Sunday nights @10pm on HBO.